How high-tech Navy went off course on basic seamanship skills

About this series | A look at the issues affecting the Navy and the 7th Fleet: lack of training, manning gaps and the culture of surface warfare officers.


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 4, 2017

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — An exasperated Sen. Angus King recently grilled the Navy’s top uniformed officer for reasons why two high-tech destroyers had collided with commercial ships since June.

“How in the world could a billion-dollar destroyer not know that there’s a freighter closing in on it?” King asked during a Senate committee hearing on Sept. 19. “This is just unacceptable from just a modern seamanship point of view, it seems to me.”

Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, didn’t disagree. He promised King that all would be made known when investigations are completed into the June collision of the USS Fitzgerald and the August collision of the USS John S. McCain, along with a sweeping Navy-wide review of systemic flaws. The investigations would particularly focus on “proper operation of your equipment, fundamentals of watch standing,” Richardson said, using the nautical term for the continuous oversight of essential ship operations, most importantly bridge navigation.

The collisions, which left 17 sailors dead, have raised questions about how the Navy mans, certifies, maintains and operates its surface ships, particularly those operating in the Pacific’s crowded sea lanes.

But as Richardson implied, the disasters raise doubts about the state of seamanship in the Navy — just how competent the average officer is at the basics of charting, steering, watching and veering.


Some former Navy officers contend that mastering complex warfighting operations and technology aboard warships comes at the expense of honing seamanship skills.

“The seamanship part, I think, is really treated as an assumed baseline, even though that’s the part that we do for real every day,” said Steven Stashwick, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. Before leaving active duty in 2015, he spent a decade as a surface warfare officer. His duties included teaching navigation.

“It’s not even really a tension between seamanship and war-fighting; it’s simply that the seamanship part is assumed and thereby not really thought about until something goes wrong or until events thrust it upon you, as the sea is wont to do.”

That attitude shows, he said, in the strategy issued in January by Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of Pacific Fleet’s surface force.

“It’s all about warfighting,” Stashwick said. “And that makes sense, but it’s revealing that nowhere in that document do you see words like ‘seamanship’ or ‘mariner.’ They are lesser-included assumptions in the quest to achieve greater warfighting skill and capability.”

While every captain knows the fastest way to get fired is to have your ship involved in a “mishap” — the Navy’s term for minor and major collisions and running aground — a crew’s generic seamanship proficiency does not play a significant role in command promotion, Stashwick said.

“It’s really things like warfare qualifications or administrative and managerial acumen that would be the career discriminators,” he said.

‘A rude awakening’

Navy veteran Mitch McGuffie has been arguing for more stringent training and specialization for Navy surface officers after spending two years as a bridge watch keeper aboard the British Royal Navy’s HMS Cornwall during an exchange program from 2005 to 2007.

“I called it a rude awakening,” said McGuffie, who at the time regarded himself a “competent mariner” with a fair amount of bridge time on a destroyer.

“But once I got to the Royal Navy, it was a completely different environment where officers were given a lot more responsibilities with fewer officers on the bridge of a ship,” he said. For the first few months he said he was embarrassed by his lack of maritime knowledge.

McGuffie came away from the experience, which he later recounted in an article for Proceedings Magazine in 2009, convinced that Navy surface warfare officers should specialize to give themselves greater depth of experience in bridge watch standing.

“Most navies in the world divide their officers into warfare officers — those who drive ships, who fight ships and go on to command ships — and engineers, who become very proficient at operating engineering plants and often have engineering degrees,” he said.

“We try to make everyone a jack-of-all-trades,” he said of the Navy. “So one tour you might be on the bridge of a ship. The next tour you might be in engineering and never go on the bridge of a ship. Then you get sent to shore for four years, where you’re not even on the bridge of a ship. Being great at anything is about repetition and experience.”

Stashwick is likewise critical of the Navy’s approach to make surface officers “generalists,” which sometimes results in captains possessing little more actual ship-driving experience than their junior officers.

The generalist model is useful from a human-resources aspect, he said, because it gives the Navy a large pool of interchangeable officers rather than stovepipes of professional disciplines. Such a system creates a larger group of officers eligible for command.

One of that system’s downsides, however, is that a lot of ensigns are jockeying for finite bridge time to become certified.

“All that time underway gets divided among those individuals,” McGuffie said. “So that responsibility kind of gets diluted a little bit.”

He recalled that many times he was the sole officer on the bridge of the HMS Cornwall. “I felt a lot more of the weight of that responsibility when I was in the Royal Navy,” he said.

The Navy has also floundered in setting basic requirements for mariner education for prospective surface officers before they board their first ship.

In 2003, the Navy ended the required months of navigation schooling and instead gave junior officers a packet of CDs containing self-paced lessons.

Richardson told the Senate committee last month that the computer-based approach proved to be “woefully inadequate.” In 2012, the Navy began an initial eight-week classroom navigation course that includes use of simulators, he said. In 2014, an eight-week course of more advanced training was added for junior officers in between sea tours.

Stashwick questioned whether the additions have been sufficient, given that junior officers aboard the McCain, Fitzgerald and two guided-missile cruisers involved in mishaps this year were graduates of the courses.

Complacency issues

Complacency, however, can bedevil even the most skilled mariner, even when operations tempo is as high as it is for forward-deployed ships of the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, said Peter Haynes, a former Navy captain who retired in 2016 and is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank.

“Even when your op-tempo is high like that, you tend to get complacent and — not necessarily take risks — but you don’t necessarily prepare yourself mentally for what’s out there,” he said.

“In these cases, I think complacency could be an issue that needs to be addressed systemically. What are we doing wrong with the watch teams? Are their jobs elsewhere taking up so much of their time and effort that when actually on watch they don’t have the energy needed?”

Jan van Tol, who retired as a captain from the Navy in 2007 after a career that included command of three warships, witnessed high-tech navigational devices supplant the old-fashioned maneuvering board, a paper and pencil system for plotting the relative motion of two ships to predict possible collision points.

In 2005, the Navy announced it would begin phasing out paper charts with the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, and ships certified with the system no longer were required to have charts.

But van Tol, a senior fellow at CSBA, laments the passing of the low-tech maneuvering boards because they “helped internalize your feeling for relative motion, which is absolutely key to avoiding collisions.”

Automated charts can lead to complacency in watch standers.

“They may just think, ‘Yeah, the machine is going to take care of it so we don’t need to be as alert,’ ” van Tol said.

Richardson told the Senate committee that for the electronic-aided system to be reliable, the operators had to understand the underlying principles of the display and be ready “to question the validity of that display when things don’t look right.”

“It’s extremely important that we’ve got that in place,” he said.

Busy junior officers, however, have a lot on their plate besides navigation, Stashwick said.

“It’s very is easy to see your time on the bridge as almost a distraction from everything else you’re doing,” he said. Putting together a training plan for your division, creating a PowerPoint presentation for an operation, routine reports – it all needs to get done.

“Even though [bridge watch standing] should be the single most important thing you’re doing in that moment, it’s very understandable for officers to be very tired and very distracted. You’re being pulled in so many different directions. I’ve been there.”

Twitter: @WyattWOlson

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson talks with Sid and Theresa Palmer of Decatur, Ill., parents of Petty Officer 3rd Class Logan Palmer, before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 19, 2017. Logan Palmer was one of 10 sailors who died in a collision between the USS John McCain and a tanker near Singapore on August 21.